Films such as “The Song of Names” are often lost in a crowd of other dramas set during World War II.
“The Song of Names” in particular is more likely than most to blend into the background simply because it hasn’t built up any sort of name recognition. I couldn’t remember the name of this film prior to writing this review, and it hasn’t garnered the most positive reactions from critics. It is currently sitting at a 43% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that score will likely deter some audiences from seeing the film.
The tragedy of this situation is that “The Song of Names” is actually quite good. Sure, it has its problems, but the emotion and resonance of the story is so powerful that the film is able to soar beyond those issues and really tug on one’s heartstrings.
Directed by François Girard and adapted from the book written by Norman Lebrecht, “The Song of Names” is a story about accepting one’s past, embracing one’s passions and supporting one’s friends.
The two main characters are Martin and Dovidl. We see both of them at three separate points in their lives — as adolescents (about 10 years old), young adults (around 20 years old) and as grown men (in their 50s).
Chronologically, this story begins at the dawn of World War II. Martin is a child growing up in London. He’s happy with his family, and he has a love for music and art. His world changes, however, when his parents adopt Dovidl, a child Polish refugee of the same age.
Dovidl is a prodigy when it comes to playing the violin. Even at such a young age, he always manages to stun anyone who hears him play. As Martin and Dovidl grow up together, they bond over music, and the two become inseparable. That is, until Dovidl mysteriously disappears on the night of a concert he was slated to perform at.
The narrative of the film centers primarily on the adult versions of the characters with glimpses of their formative years interspersed throughout the runtime. The adult Martin, played by Tim Roth, is trying to track down his lost brother, played by Clive Owen. Martin’s search for Dovidl takes him across Europe and even to New York, and all the while the film is slowly building toward a beautiful and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
One of the chief ideas explored in this film is how one’s perspective on religion and family can change with age — specifically through Dovidl’s Jewish heritage. He struggles to maintain his faith over the course of his life. There are times in which he resents the concept of religion, and there are moments in which he embraces Judaism wholeheartedly. Ultimately, it's the devotion to his family — who were never heard from following Germany’s invasion of Poland — that brings Dovidl back to his faith.
Dovidl struggles throughout the film to let his family go. He knows they were likely killed, but because that has never been confirmed, he finds it incredibly difficult to say goodbye to them. This same situation can be found in Martin’s relationship with Dovidl. The two were incredibly close, and when Dovidl suddenly disappeared, Martin was lost. As such, Martin dedicates an enormous amount of effort into finding Dovidl, in the same way that Dovidl is trying to find some sort of closure for his own family.
It’s this story and these complex emotions that make “The Song of Names” as resonant as it is, but all of these emotions are only intensified through the phenomenal performances of Roth, Owen and each of the actors that played Martin and Dovidl at different ages. Every single one of their performances was incredibly genuine. They each depicted the reactions and motivations of both of these characters with class and sincerity. They each portrayed these characters in different contexts, but they somehow managed to form a sense of consistency between them. Even though both characters are played by three different performers, they still felt like the same characters whenever they were on screen.
These performances served to elevate the film to a new level and provide a fabulous and heartrending experience that will undoubtedly stick with audiences.
“The Song of Names” does have some issues, such as a slightly unbalanced pace, but I believe that the good aspects of this film far outweigh the bad. This film is an emotional rollercoaster that will both excite audiences and leave them wanting to call their loved ones just to say “hi.”
It’s a film that will not disappoint, and it should not be forgotten or lost in the background.